Should Church law on papal resignations be changed? Professor Thomas Schüller, head of the canon law department at Münster University, thinks so. In a recent German television interview he argued that when a pope retires he ought no longer to wear white, but return to the red and black he wore as a cardinal and visibly give up the Ring of the Fisherman. Schüller also criticised the title “Pope Emeritus”, adopted by Benedict XVI after his resignation in 2013, saying that “it merely leads to confusion”.
Some may be tempted to dismiss Schüller’s thesis simply because it emanates from Germany. But misgivings about aspects of Benedict’s resignation are not limited to the progressive Catholic world. Last year St John Paul II’s biographer George Weigel said bluntly that “the decisions about these matters made in 2013 were mistaken”.
He wrote: “The former Benedict XVI ought to have reverted to being Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, or perhaps simply ‘Bishop Joseph’. And … he ought not to have kept even a modified form of the vesture proper to a pope.” Weigel, too, took issue with the term “Pope Emeritus”, arguing that a former pope is quite different to a diocesan bishop who takes the title “bishop emeritus” on his retirement. He argued that “One either holds the Office of Peter or one doesn’t.”
The highest ranking churchman to express such reservations publicly is probably Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelisation. In May he said that while he respected the title “Pope Emeritus”, he refused to use it, because theologically it “creates more problems rather than solving them”. He said that he preferred to wait for another, less problematic title for the retired pope.
How have Catholics in the pew received these decisions? It’s hard to say as there doesn’t appear to be any empirical data, even though Benedict XVI’s resignation was one of the most momentous Catholic events since Vatican II. Anecdotally, people seem to refer to the retired pope as “Benedict” rather than the Pope Emeritus. While the vast majority understood immediately that Benedict had fully renounced the Petrine office, a significant number seemed puzzled as to why he continued to wear white.
In Rome’s defence, Benedict’s resignation caught almost everyone off guard. Officials had less than a month to work out the details and no recent precedents to guide them. They wanted to ensure that the German pope was treated with the utmost dignity, even if he himself had apparently wanted to be known simply as “Father Benedict”. “I was too weak at that point to enforce it,” he told a German newspaper in 2014.
No one is suggesting that Benedict ought now to be asked to dress as a cardinal or renounce the title “Pope Emeritus”. But Schüller, Weigel and Fisichella are right to raise their concerns in a respectful manner. Benedict has opened the way for future papal resignations. It is possible that in the 21st century most pontificates will end in abdication rather than death. Given this prospect, the Church ought to develop clear and easily understood protocols.
The Belgian test
The Brothers of Charity are a Belgian religious order founded in 1807 with the purpose of caring for the elderly. Two centuries later, hospitals overseen by the same Brothers (but run by a board predominantly of lay people) are now providing for the euthanasia of elderly and handicapped people. How on earth did it come to this?
We know that Belgium has some of the most liberal euthanasia laws in the world, and statistics published by the Belgian government show that this mode of departure from this world is becoming increasingly common, supposedly as a free choice of those who die. One might have expected that Catholic institutions would represent a safe haven for the old and those suffering from mental illness, who are most at risk of being persuaded to “opt” for euthanasia. Indeed, Catholic teaching is clear and consistent on this point. The taking of innocent life is never allowed.
However, the board that runs the Brothers’ hospitals, which care for many thousands, thinks otherwise. Despite clear directives from the Vatican, they have continued to provide euthanasia, and even claim, outrageously, that this is in keeping with Catholic teaching. It is not, as both the Pope and the superior of the Brothers, Brother René Stockman, have told them in no uncertain terms.
There is only one way out of this impasse, given the obduracy of the board, and that is that the hospitals and the religious order that has ultimate supervision of them are decoupled, so it becomes clear that these are no longer Catholic institutions. No Catholic organisation can countenance euthanasia. To do so would be morally wrong and completely incoherent, given the very clear tradition of the Church in this matter.
Meanwhile, the people of Belgium need to wake up to the great evil being committed in their midst. In 2015, more than 2,000 people were reported as having been put to death; the real figure is thought to be much higher. In 2013, 4.6 per cent of deaths in the Flanders region were by euthanasia, and 1.7 per cent of deaths were hastened by doctors without specific patient consent. The Church has to oppose this. The case of the Brothers’ hospitals is a test of its intention to do so.
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